Thursday, October 27, 2011

A tribute to wizardry

This is one of those blog posts that I meant to write for a while, certainly since I started this blog. I want to talk about Wizard's Tower. What is Wizard's Tower you may ask? It was a small comic book/games in the Unicentre building, on University of Ottawa campus. For all its flaws (and it did have them), it still holds a bit of magic for me. This was the place where I first met my wife, where I made so many friends, and probably learned more about so many different subjects than the university itself taught me.

Probably my favourite time at Wizard's Tower was on a Sunday morning. It opened at 11 and closed at 5. After a hard night of term paper writing, or partying, or playing games, I would sleep in, wake up around 10, shower, dress, and shamble uphill on Nelson street to Wizard's Tower. Although I profess to detest walks, those uphill walks made me fall in love with Ottawa. I'd get to Wizard's Tower, often the first customer of the day. Clambering up on one of those bar stools that the store had set up around its sole long table, I'd chat up either of the store employees (Brian or Gen, the former I remember fondly as a font of inexhaustible philosophy and comic book trivia, the latter is a good friend, former roommate, and all-around great person). I remember how on sunny days the enormous windows set in the top of the northern wall (the ceiling was VERY high) would set the dust glittering on old Frank Frazetta posters and anime wall scrolls. The best days though were the bad weather days. Then the store was this little island of calm greyness and good music would usually be playing, and you could just sit, decompress, and flip through comic books, a stack of game cards (in those days usually Warlord, Star Wars, or Legend of Five Rings), or some RPG product.

People would drift in, maybe play a game, argue about the really important immortal geek debates (katana vs. European swords, the relevance of Gnosticism, which D&D class was really overpowered, Marvel vs. DC, and bitching about professors and classes), and pore over the store's offerings. Most of the space was dedicated to the comic books, more manga began to appear later on, the back shelves were devoted to role-playing products, the miniatures/action figures/collectibles were at the front of the store, CCG stuff (the real money-maker!) was at the counter. The gaming table was positioned asymmetrically in front of the counter, a huge table with bins of back-issue comic books was at the back. I first saw my wife sitting at that table, reading a manga. I met most of my Ottawa friends at that table, although usually the bonding was accomplished through fierce card battles and debates about D&D (this being the heyday of Third Edition and later 3.5).

The store got dirty in winter as people walked in from the outside. Ordering through the store was spotty, and everyone bitched about the store owner's (Dave's) apparently contrary nature and disregard for customer preferences. The prices (especially on RPG products) were higher than elsewhere in Ottawa, and the gaming space (particularly important for Collectible Card Games - where the store I suspect made most of its money) was limited. Not all the store regulars were interesting and/or socially pleasant people to be around, but at least the stereotypical neck-beard/hygienically-challenged troll gaming store population was fairly low. In fact, after having been to many other gaming stores in Ottawa and Toronto, I am now convinced that in many ways the Wizard's Tower - perhaps owing to its location right on campus - had a more interesting clientele and resulting conversations than most other such stores.

Today I have a totally anomalous day - I actually have free time, with no preparation required for tomorrow (90% of teaching is preparation for teaching), and a cold grey day outside that makes me want to reminisce (hence this blog post! Duh!). I feel like I ought to be ambling over to some warm place, where other geeks know my name, where we can sit around a table, eat poutine, drink coffee or whatnot, and argue about movies, comic books, books, politics, religion, and relationships. And then I remember that I have not been to Wizard's Tower in nearly ten years now, and that the store is not there anymore, and the people are now all over the place. As they say on the internetz - feels bad man.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Drive: the review

Today I've had the lucky occasion to see "Drive" starring Ryan Gosling, Carey Mulligan, Albert Brooks, Ron Perlman. It is a movie too violent for some, too slow-paced for others, but I found it a riveting meditation on love, violence and obsession. Ryan Gosling, who was spectacular in "The Believer" (2001), plays a quietly pleasant man who works as a stunt driver in Hollywood movies and a part-time mechanic by day, and an efficient professional getaway driver by night. He is a man of few words, but he is no less a presence for that - his character has emotions that run deep, rather than being repressed like so many other male characters. I was reminded of Clint Eastwood's Blondie from "Dollars" trilogy of Westerns or Jeremy Renner's character in "The Hurt Locker." He is a professional, he loves what he is doing, he is - when we first meet him - content with his life. Unlike many other close-lipped macho characters, however, he seems like a friendly and unassuming person. He is polite, and has a slow way of smiling that I've felt really captures the audience's sympathy. Perhaps that is why Irene - played with touching innocence and vulnerability by Carey Mulligan - and her little son Benicio take a liking to him.

The Driver - for he has no other name in the movie - likes them back. He is nice to both Irene and Benicio without being pushy, territorial or aggressively sexual towards Irene. There is a growing attraction between them, and there are several wonderful long shots that are quietly revealing. We sense that there is a potential for a real human connection - a lasting relationship - between the Driver and Irene and Benicio, but then of course everything starts going wrong for them as "Drive" becomes a stylish and intellectual crime thriller. Driver's friend and boss gets into debt to some very dangerous criminals (played adroitly by Albert Brooks and Ron Perlman), Irene's husband is released from prison and he too owes dangerous people a lot of money. As people close to the Driver begin to pin their hopes and fears on him, his emotional calm begins to disintegrate, revealing a dangerous, violent and complex man underneath. To reveal more would be to spoil the surprises in the movie. "Drive" is slow-paced by current Hollywood-Michael-Bay standards, but still features a shocking amount of violence (all of which looks far more realistic than most Hollywood movies released this year), plot twists, and amazing car chase scenes.

"Drive" makes excellent use of real car stunts, not once did I feel that computer graphics were used, and indeed - none have. Indeed, "Drive" has outstanding cinematography throughout. There are gorgeous shots of the city, the road, landscapes, and shadows, that create a vision of Los Angeles that few movies have attempted to do before - "Collateral" (2004) being one of them. Director Nicolas Winding Refn also makes excellent use of music - music is used successfully to drive the action forward, and the way it subtly bleeds into the scene - it almost becomes a character in the movie! It is a beautiful movie from beginning to end.

I cannot recommend "Drive" highly enough. It is a beautiful, emotional, and charged movie, with a fantastic cast and art direction. It might be too meditative or alternatively too violent for some audiences, but I think that it will be a sleeper hit of 2011, and will be talked about and discussed for a long time to come.

*Warning, this a red band trailer*



Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Horrible lessons from Harry Potter

As a consequence of watching Harry Potter while drunk, here are the horrible lessons I've learned about life from Harry Potter:
- Hogwarths (or however it's spelled) is worse than American education system, it tracks kids based not on grades but based on some stupid shitty hat. Guess what! If you're already kind of a dick, you'll get put into the House that's going to make you even more of a dick! And give you powers to be a superdick to everyone else!
- Let's teach love potions to asshole Aryan bullies. Ummmmmm, date rape drugs anyone? Oh wait, let's teach love potions to asshole Aryan TEENAGE bullies! Nothing bad could happen, right?
- "Dark Arts 101". That is all.
- It's totally OK to be a condescending dick to other students if they happen to belong to another House.
- Harry Potter teaches kids that fraternities/sororities are totally cool (vis-a-vis Houses)
- Oh yeah, let's teach spells about turning water into RUM to 11 year olds! Totally responsible adult supervision!
- For that matter combat magic. If Hogwarths is so fucking impregnable, then why the fuck do 11 year olds need to learn self-defense?
- "Once you got hold of your broom, I want you to mount it, and grip it tight, you don't want to be sliding off the end." A - ROFLMAO teaching 11 year olds to give handjobs. B - AWESOME FUCKING SAFETY INSTRUCTIONS THERE! How about a seatbelt or something?
- Your pet is a soulless construct whom you don't have to feed and that just comes when you call it. Sorry kids! Real pets aren't like Tamagochi!
- If you're a person who's been born with a talent for magic, it's totally OK to feel superior to everyone else and be an asshole about it. Hmmm, I can't for the life of me think why feeling superior based on one's birth is BAD!
- Do these kids actually learn anything else in school other than magic? Like anatomy, or math, or English, or what?

In conclusion. Muggles have nukes, satellites, anthrax, a lot of experience at killing each other, and there are 6.5 billion of us. You do not. Fuck. With. Us.

Friday, August 19, 2011

"We are locked in history, they were not"



This to me is the pivotal phrase in Werner Herzog's documentary film "Cave of Forgotten Dreams" about the Chauvet cave where the oldest known cave paintings have been found. I will not speak of the film's creative merits (tremendous as they are), or the technical merits (a better application of 3D technology I cannot think of), or its philosophical meaning (ponderous and intrusive as it may be). Instead I found myself thinking of what it means to live inside and outside of history.




We live in a world that is at once as future-oriented as it is mired in the past. We worry about the future nearly as much as we worry about the past it seems to me. Yesterday and today there was yet another spat of missile exchanges between Palestinians and Israelis. Who struck the first blow in this very recent exchange quickly turns into a question of who struck the first blow. Ever. Period. We are - despite tremendous technological progress - very conservative species. We are quick to grab to whatever flotsam we can and turn it into conventions and traditions - the past is far more important than the present in our psyche. Even our imagined future is only an extrapolation of what we know about the past and the present.



Imagine people living outside of history. They have no records of what happened 50 years ago, or 100 years ago, or 6000 years ago. There are cave paintings, stories and myths, songs and carvings. They get periodically updated (as Australian Aborigenes touch up ancient rock paintings as a sign of respect and bonding with their ancestors), but they are timeless. They might as well have been created 50 years ago as 30,000 years ago. The future rarely exists beyond a year. Only the immediate future is regarded with any degree of anxiety. Anything farther than that is regarded placidly. There is something comforting in this fatalism. Do not worry about another Great War. Do not worry about the C
old War turning hot. Do not worry about the climate change, or recession, or a flu pandemic. Be born, grow up, raise children, pass on what you know, die.

The cave painters of Chauvet are such people. They regard the world around them with reverence I think. Look at the details of the paintings of animals. They are not being hunted in these paintings (unlike the more recent ones). They move, they fight, they run, they hunt, they copulate. There is joy in the paintings, the awareness that the humans are not the pinnacle of creation - they are merely given the gift of active observing. The paintings in Chauvet Cave were made over approximately 5,000 years. People came back to that cave, over and over again. They relighted the fires. They made obeisance before the bones they carried to the cave. They touched up earlier paintings and made new ones. They left their hand prints in ochre paint. An autograph? A link to the past? A link to the future? There is awareness that time passes, but I get the feeling that it was a calm acceptance on their part that time flow. It's all the same. Imagine being a paleolithic artist walking into the cave. You see paintings left behind by your predecessors. These paintings could've been done by your grandparent. Or they could be done by an artist dead for 5,000 years. It makes no difference. You pick up your coal or ochre and start painting beside or around the older images. What does it matter when the older image was painted? It's all the same.

How long will our creations last? The oldest known structures still standing are barely 6,000 years old. That they still stand is not really a testament to the ancient builders, but to the materials they have chosen, the climate, and sheer luck that they have not been toppled by earthquakes, drowned and washed away by floods, or taken apart brick by brick (or stone by stone) by their enterprising successors. Alan Weisman's excellent book The World Without Us takes a serious and sobering look at how quickly nature returns when we are gone, at which of our creations will endure. It will not be long for our most magnificent creations to cease. In the grand scheme of things we are, as a poet once said, "But a beat within the heart of time". So let's enjoy the moment and stop worrying about the past and the future once in a while.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Kobo eReader Touch review

I hit a dilemma when preparing for my trip to Russia. I was only bringing a carry-on bag, which limited the amount of reading material I could bring. Being a voracious reader I wanted to bring quite a bit, but since my laptop was out of commission and the new one had not arrived yet I had to figure out an alternative. Looking around I finally decided that I was being a Luddite and it was time to try out an ebook reader. I love holding a book, I love shopping for books, I love just staring at my full bookshelves at home! Yet it was time for a change. After doing some research I settled on Kobo eReader Touch and brought it with me on my trip. After several days of continuous use, here's my brief review.

The Kobo eReader is a robust ebook reader in a mid-price range, with a large number of features, and the following specifications:
Available Colors

Lilac, Blue, Silver and Black
Wireless Connectivity 802.11b/g/n
Processor Freescale 508 Processor
Device Size 114mm X 165mm (4.5 in. X 6.5 in.)
Device Depth 10mm (0.4 in.)
Weight 185g (6.5 oz.)
Diagonal Display Size 6" Pearl high contrast E Ink display
Screen Grey-Scale 16 Level
Storage 2GB*
Memory Expansion Up to 30,000 eBooks with a 32 GB SD Memory Card
Connectivity USB, Wi Fi
Battery Life 1 month**
Supported File Formats Books: EPUB, PDF and MOBI
Documents: PDF
Images: JPEG, GIF, PNG, BMP and TIFF
Text: TXT, HTML and RTF
Comic Books: CBZ and CBR
Pre-Loaded eBooks 15 Hand-Selected Free Previews
Fonts 7 Font Styles, 17 Available Sizes
Software New & Improved Free Kobo Desktop Software

I was only able to obtain a blue model. Regardless of the colour, the front is always white, so really the colour doesn't matter if you use a sleeve (I do). The actual memory space available for books is 1gb, but it supports 32gb MicroSD so running out of space isn't really an issue. Now for the pros and cons:

Pros:
- Kobo eReader Touch is very light, the screen is just big enough, and the interface is simple. Reading it on a bus or subway is a breeze, and flipping pages is much easier than on older eReaders thanks to touch technology.
- The Touch feature is nice and it allows for a greater freedom when manipulating text. The touch keyboard is responsive and easy to use
- Kobo eReader Touch supports not just the standard ePub e-book format, but also MOBI (Kindle format), PDFs, TXT, HTML, and CBZ and CBR (comic book formats) in addition to all the standard picture formats. I found that although the screen is black-and-white only (obviously), the comic book formats and PDF files nonetheless have a high picture quality and very readable.
- The Kobo eReader has wi-fi that can be used not just to browse ebook stores, but also to surf the internet. That's right, the eReader has a fully functional browser that's strongly reminiscent of Google Chrome. It's a beta version, but I found it useful enough despite some drawbacks (more on them later)
- The Kobo eReader also supports 7 fonts and 17 different sizes and additional fonts and sizes can also be downloaded. That's very handy for reading webpages, PDFs, etc. The default font, however, is quite readable.
- Adding books to the eReader is a breeze - just drag and drop, OR if you connect the eReader to your home network you can access your computer's directory and add books to the reader using its own interface.

Cons
- The browser is nice to have, but currently very very slow. The touch technology is not as highly responsive as (say) Google Nexus S or iPhone, but it practically stutters in the browser.
- The Kobo eReader is supposed to be able to read MOBI (Kindle format) books, however, when I loaded around 200 books in MOBI format most of them did not display correctly, most of the text being replaced by gibberish. That was annoying and disheartening. I thought at first that maybe it's because I pirated the books and tried free MOBI books offered by Kindle store and Gutenberg project, but encountered similar problem. I've as yet not found a solution, and Kobo website has not offered one either. That's very annoying, so for now I'm limited to books in TXT, ePub, and PDF formats.
- The battery life is adequate for several days of continuous reading, but as soon as wi-fi is turned on the battery life drops precipitously. Furthermore, the eReader only comes with a USB wire thus requiring a computer for recharging. You can buy a Kobo power outlet adaptor, or use a generic micro-USB-to-USB power outlet adaptor (which is what I ended up using).

Final thoughts
The Kobo eReader is a robust and enjoyable eReader that provided me with excellent reading experience, and the browser was actually a life-saver at one point. It's light, easy to use, easy to scroll pages, displays a lot of different formats, and the battery life is adequate. Its puzzling inability to display books in MOBI format is a big fly in the ointments, but for its price the Kobo eReader just might be the best ereader in its range.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

An ideal RPG

I've been running role-playing games (RPGs for short) as a Game Master (GM from now on) for nearly 15 years now. I think I've ran maybe 10 different systems (including the different iterations of Dungeons and Dragons), played in several more, and read maybe 20+ different systems. In additions I've tried my hand at writing my own systems, and got paid for contributing to a game system (Fantasy Flight Games' wildly successful line of Warhammer 40k RPGs). So I have some weight to opinions on RPG design. In all this time, however, I've never reached my platonic ideal of a perfect RPG to game master (GM). That said, however, I have some darn good inklings as to what my ideal RPG to GM would look like.

Minimum of rules for maximum of results
I want a system that doesn't provide me with minute rules for every possible action a character can make (never mind that it's an impossible task). I want a system that tells me how I can quickly come up with my own rules to adjudicate character actions. I don't want a system that needs tinkering, or a lot of rule memorization, in order to work. I want quick tools that are applicable in the maximum of situations. What RPGs so far might fall under this heading? The closest I've seen so far is Mouse Guard (based on Burning Wheel system), Wushu (terrific for one-session play, but a little too rules-lite), and (albeit with some tinkering) the New World of Darkness RPG from White Wolf.

Plug and Play
My ideal system does not require much (or ideally not any) tinkering to be used with a variety of settings and groups. I don't want ponderous rules for spelling out the nuances of all the individual species, classes, gear, etc. I want a system that focuses on character actions and decision regardless of what setting they might be in. The adventures of Odysseus are - despite the obvious differences - similar in structure and motivations to those of Jack Carter of Martian Chronicles, or many comic book heroes, or whatnot. That's what interests me more: the actions of the characters, their motivations, their adventures and personality. That's what I want the system to focus on, not tables upon tables of every conceivable minutae.

So easy your grandmother could use it
I'm not a dumb person, and I have a reasonably good memory, but I want the minimum of memorizaton required. If the rules could be fit on a DM screen in their entirety I would be ecstatic. If I could hand the rules to my players and they'd be familiar with them after 20 minutes of reading tops I would be ecstatic. I don't want a challenging tactical simulator (I'd play video games or tabletop wargames for that), or a super-realistic game. My criteria in this category is that the system should at no point slow down the game or take away the fun.

It keeps going and going and going...
There are many so-called narrativist and rules-lite systems that already do most of what I've set out above. Most of the ones I've looked at, however, suffer from a particular flaw - they do not support character progression with meaningful rules. The players are at heart stat-munchkins (even if they say otherwise). They want to see numbers change on their character sheet. They want to feel that their characters change in more ways than just their role in the story. And they want that progression to be meaningful and visible (again, even if they say otherwise). Most rule-lite RPGs I've read work great for short adventures or one-shots, but few offer this kind of progression that satisfies the players.

I've got the world on a string
The characters won't be doing much if there isn't a world to do it in. World building is a fun part of any GM's job and most of creativity and imagination goes into world building. All too often, however, I get frustrated trying to adapt a particular system to the world I have in mind. I look at the feats or skills or advantages or edges or aspects or whatnot that I would have to come up with for my world in order to make it work as intended. And therefore I return to my first point - instead of rules I want tools to help me make up monsters, people, effects, vehicles, gear, etc., on the fly without having to look through a book (and normally I'm lucky if it's just one book, usually it might involve multiple supplements) and thus grinding the game to a halt. That just ruins the fun and wastes time for everyone. Also, if I have to spend more time preparing for the game than actually running it, then I do not want to run it. That's why I don't run Dungeons and Dragons (of any edition) anymore.

Am I asking for too much? Eh, I'm sure I could get some good answers about people's favourite systems that purport to fulfill all my criteria, but to be honest - and arrogant - I doubt that they would. Eventually I'll build my own and inflict it on my players!

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Enough coddling

Inspired by a Globe and Mail article on shorter summer holidays for students and instead spreading the holidays more evenly throughout the year (here's the link), here's what I think are necessary changes to fix education system in Ontario:

- Let students graduate with a certificate at 16 to start work earlier, or continue to 18 and graduate with a diploma which allows them to go on to University or College, and let their last year count as University/College credits (in the same fashion as CGEP in Quebec). This is the system in Great Britain and it seems to produce some good results. It lessens the burden on the system (less students in higher grades), prepares the students better for post-secondary education or for workplace, and lets those students who are interested in starting to work early to do so without penalizing them for dropping out of high school.

- Shorten summer holidays (again, the way it's done in Britain), or get rid of them and spread the holidays throughout the year. We need to compensate for loss of OAC, help knowledge retention, and allow students and parents to enjoy more time together throughout the year rather than stress the parents with having to find babysitters, summer camp, or summer school during the summer. Systems with shorter holidays, or year-long programs (whether public systems abroad, or some of the private schools right here in Canada) show much better academic results and graduation rate.

- We need to bring back meaningful assessments and evaluations, and to implement stricter guidelines on academic performance. Under the current system it's next to impossible to give a failing grade, and meaningful deadlines for assignments (and indeed course completions!) are non-existent. Students are also being pushed through the system without regard as to their actual progress, resulting in situations where a Grade 12 student who has been in a Canadian system all his life reads and writes at a Grade 2 level (personally witnessed).

- I think we need to at once make the curriculum more flexible in some areas and more rigid in other areas. First of all, the vocational courses need to be accessible to students earlier (so that they can graduate with a certificate at 16 and start working). Secondly electives need to be available in earlier grades. Thirdly certain core subjects (English and Math primarily) need to be not only mandatory throughout all grades, but also be year-long. Otherwise the results are just embarrassing. Finally we need to give technology and computer courses earlier. We often take it for granted that the young generation are tech-savvy, but in reality they are woefully ignorant. They know how to text, use Facebook, post YouTube videos and chat, and that's it. When it comes to actual practical knowledge of computers and software even 40-50 years olds can run circles around 16-year olds. I've seen it myself. The amazement of "You can do that in word processor?!" is funny only the first couple of times. Afterward it's sad.

Given the trajectory that our education system seems to be on right now, I think within 10 years we're going to hit a crisis in the work force, practical and pure research, and education in general. It's going to take some drastic changes to avoid it.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Everyone has problems

Just thinking out "loud", but these are the problems I think will become increasingly important to Canada and the world at large. Regardless of the headaches that this kind of thinking causes, sometimes it's good to take a look at the big picture, at the map ahead. In no particular order:

- Climate Change. This one's going to be huge for way too many reasons to list. "Climate Wars" by Gwynne Dyer is probably one of the most insightful books on the subject meant for popular audiences.
- End of cheap goods. There's every indication that the rapid Chinese growth spurred on by Western demand for cheap goods is coming to the end, due to currency imbalance, living quality growth in China, and growing consumer demand within China. Now it is likely that other countries will pick up Chinese slack, but for a confluence of reasons China was the ideal place to provide cheap manufactured goods to the rest of the world, and that might change.
- Growing polarization of politics, especially in Canada. I think that we are already well into our own Canadian Culture Wars and it's going to get worse before it gets better, especially with the latest election results and growth of Conservative media outlets and popular sentiment.
- Sustainable Development (or lack thereof): the problem is not that of technology. That much is very clear by now. The problem is that of political and social will. Our political system prevents any kind of meaningful long-term planning and development, and our social system prevents us from dropping our favourite childhood toys and grow up. The world's not going to stand still and wait for us to get our act together, but our leaders and masses are unable and unwilling to come to grips with it.
- Clash of Civilizations: personally I hate this term. I think it's misleading, dangerous, and smacks of high-blown rhetoric and demagoguery. However, looking at the current political climate, it might just become a reality. Whether this is a self-fulfilling prophecy or not, it remains to be seen.
- Peak Oil. 20 years ago the idea of global Peak Oil was deemed preposterous. Today respectable textbooks (McGraw Hill, Pearson, etc.) publish graphs showing that peak oil is happening right now. While the deposits in Alaska, the China Sea, Canadian oil sands, etc., might give hopes that there are still vast reserves of oil to offset Peak Oil and stave off oil production collapse for several decades, that's a little like arguing that an addict shouldn't abandon his heroin addiction because there's still plenty of heroin available.

Well, that's all for now. More thoughts as they come.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

The power of storytelling... to kick ass!

Ran a Wushu game the other night. It was impromptu and very spontaneous, so in other words - perfect conditions to run such a game. I let the players pretty much go wild and do what they want (I did have to veto a telepathic schoolgirl geisha character though - ick!). The theme was Space Pirates and after explaining to the players loosely how character creation worked they got to it. In the end I got:
A Chaos Space Marine (this guy)
Samuel L. Jackson from Pulp Fiction (only with an even bigger afro)
Cyborg Cyclops (the X-Men kind, not Homer's Odyssey kind)
Pink Power Ranger (the wussy one with the bow)
And a Robot Butler Bob Marley.
They fought Royal Martian Navy marines, psychic ninjas, survived a freefall from orbit to the surface of Europa and would've ended up on board the Event Horizon where they would've fought Cthulhu (pictured below). In other words - shit was so cash!

Thursday, April 14, 2011

The power of humour

After watching the leaders' debates one thing is clear - Harper is a soulless robot, whose only emotions are hatred, greed, and contempt. You can't fight him with reason or accusations, because he's usually serenely unperturbed. No, the way to fight Harper is with humour, by showing how ridiculous and evil Harper really is. We've got to get creative and funny and angry about the shit that this glossy fat pig (straight out of "Animal Farm" if you ask me!) who thinks himself the king of Canada does! And that's exactly what several students and part-time actors did.


Check out www.shitharperdid.ca and vote on May 2nd!

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Ad Astra

http://www.ad-astra.org/ is a yearly sci-fi/fantasy/horror/speculative fiction convention, focusing especially on literary side of these genres of fiction rather than celebrating the fandom (although there was quite a lot of that going on as well). This was my first year at Ad Astra and it was overall a very positive learning experience. Every humanities student/afficionado dreams that one day s/he will get published, become famous, and add to the field, and in this respect I am no exception. As a result I was particularly in Ad Astra not just as a venue to meet some of my favourite authors (although I have met a few), but also as an opportunity to learn more about how to write, how to edit, how to make connections, and how to get published. In this respect Ad Astra was a humbling yet necessary lesson.

What does it take to be a published author? Patience, self-discipline, and lots of masochism. The pay is lousy, the rejections plentiful, the angst and self-doubt always lurk around the corner, and one's work is always on a verge of being castrated (whether for good or ill) by the editors. Even getting published once is no guarantee that the lightning will strike again. One of the loudest messages was how few new authors succeed in getting published a second time, let along third or tenth. Yet Ad Astra also demonstrated first-hand how emotionally and socially rewarding being an author can be. There are the fans of course and the signings, but there is also a tremendous spirit of camaraderie and excitement, and even just being around the scene for a couple of days provided an enormous intellectual stimulus.

Some other highlights of Ad Astra included meeting some of my favourite authors (Eric Flint, Ed Greenwood), meeting many Canadian authors who I've never heard of before, but now I'm eager to read. The panel discussions were for the most part very interesting and fun. The atmosphere was quite intimate and the authors had very easily engaged with the audience for the most part. I particularly enjoyed the panels on: Medieval Martial Arts (which was more of a history panel than a demonstration, plus I won a sword in trivia!), Post-Medieval Fantasy, Getting Your First Novel Published, Publishers: A View From the Other Side (really fun and instructive workshop on crash-editing). I also had the pleasure of going to an excellent storytelling session, and a panel where the authors read some of their own work. At one panel the panelists were sufficiently impressed with my question that in half-jest they'd invited me to join them (I declined them this year).

There was some ugliness as well. There was perhaps more self-promotion by a few authors (really a minority) that I appreciated. There were also some rather cringe-worthy displays of fan enthusiasm and fawning. The really loud post-dance party that was going on was very annoying to try and sleep through. Finally I think that Steampunk movement is plateauing. It was really noticeable this year and was on display everywhere. The effect, however, was not charitable. It has begun to seem cliche, passe, and mechanical and unimaginative in its execution. The costumes were well-executed, but the designs have really started to seem more and more uniform. The 'punk' in Steampunk is supposed to represent the counter-cultural elements in 'Steam', but as it often happens with counter-cultural the external appearance can sublimate the real ideas within. But more on that in a different post I guess.

Still, Ad Astra - well worth it! Definitely going next year!

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

SUN TV

"Since the writ was dropped 10 days ago, the Sun chain of newspapers has run more than half a dozen articles accusing the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation of political bias, effectively running parallel commercial and ideological campaigns. The attacks are helping to fuel the chain’s ongoing marketing campaign for the April 18 launch of Sun TV, which is promising “Hard News and Straight Talk.” (Globe and Mail, Monday, Apr. 04, 2011 10:47PM EDT)

Anyone promising "Straight Talk" will only offer roundabout lies.

Election Lessons

There are lessons that I want my students to learn for the rest of their lives. They do not have anything to do with math or chemistry, English or geography. These are lessons on how to be a decent human being: don't lie, don't cheat, be polite, respect other people, don't gossip or lie about other people, tell the truth even if it hurts you, respect other opinions, admit when you are wrong. It is unfortunate then that certain politicians - our representatives, the shining beacons of democracy, public figures - teach us entirely different lessons. Lie, cheat, slander the other guy, twist facts until no truth remains, never admit you're in the wrong or have ever been anything less than perfect, sling mud on other opinions, and argue until you're red in the face as long as it confuses people and shut up your opponent. Every election I hope that Canadian politicians, as representatives of us mellow, democratic, polite Canadians, will rise above attack ads and slander and conduct themselves in a calm, respectable and reasonable manner that we could all be proud of.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

When storytelling goes bad

After sinking 40 hours into Dragon Age 2, and completing every side quest I could possibly find, I feel that I could write a good and thorough review of the game. Instead, I find myself more inclined to discuss how storytelling - which is something that Bioware is very good at, gameplay is a different story (from game to game) - had gone wrong in Dragon Age 2. Simply put, there are certain side quests, parts of the main plot, and characters, that show the quality and commitment to a compelling story that I've come to expect from Bioware, but somehow these never quite come together and coalesce into that quality, instead being overwhelmed by muddy writing, puzzling decisions, and frequent yawn-worthy and cliché plot twists.

Let's start with where Bioware went right when it comes to story. Some of the new companion characters and the NPCs are quite good. The Welsh-tongued Merrill - an Elven bloodmage - is a wonderful character, and her story arc was the more memorable of the side quests. I also couldn't help but like the carpet-rug-of-a-chest charming Dwarven rogue Varrick=, quick with a wit and his shotgun-like crossbow Bianca. Some of the other companions (more on them in the not-so-good section) have some redeeming qualities or amusing dialogue or quests. The other good part of the game is the excellent background information provided via the Codex entries (the character's in-game journal), and additional background information revealed through inter-character dialogue. I was particularly happy to see more information on the intriguing Qunari race and culture. Some of the NPC dialogue in the game is very sharp - I particularly liked the writing for the Viscount of Kirkwall (the city where the bulk of Dragon Age 2 takes place in). The main plot is for the most part a huge disappointment, but parts of it were well-written and frankly would've made a much better main plot than the actual complete plot of the game.


And then the storytelling begins to break down.

I have a strong feeling that Bioware - drunk with success of Dragon Age 1 and Mass Effect 2 - went on a creative spree, and then got bogged down in committee politics and couldn't decide the story idea to go with. So they picked three (or four or five - depending on the interpretation of the Dragon Age 2 plot) ideas and mashed them together hoping that they'd get an epic story out of it. Sadly what they got instead was a disjointed weird mess that never succeeded in really gripping me and getting me interested in the ultimate fate of the characters and the world. It did not even significantly advance the plot of the series. Some of the Downloadable Content (DLCs) for the first Dragon Age, and the Dragon Age expansion, did a better job of that, than the entire Dragon Age 2. Bioware went with an idea that once seemed very fresh in gaming, but now seems to be getting a bit stale - the game is a story told by a character in game (not by the main character, however, like in Prince of Persia) to another character. That allowed Bioware to do a lot of fast-forwards, by as much as 3 to 5 years at a time. Unfortunately what it resulted in was a disjointed and stunted story that fails to engage the player. Just when you think you're getting a handle on the story and the characters the story ends abruptly and a new one begins, and the time in between is not adequately explained. In fact, I would say that most of the character growth happens off-screen, and that brings me to the next strike against Bioware.

In the first Dragon Age I could create my own character, give him the name I wanted and generally make him a blank canvas (aside from the opening background adventure). In the second Dragon Age, however, the character - named Hawke - already has history, family, friends, and rivalries. Bioware clearly wanted to duplicate the tight storytelling of Mass Effect with its use of Commander Sheppard, with the decision to replace a player-created character with game designer-created Hawke. However, the travails of Hawke and his/her family just never really engage. First of all, everyone in the world seems to know more about Hawke than the player does, and much of the dialogue is incoherent, incomprehensible, or flat out boring as a result. Secondly, Hawke does not really grow as a character, and the decisions that Hawke does make just don't seem like the decisions of the player; I couldn't shake the feeling throughout all 40+ hours of the game that I was just along for the ride because Bioware wanted to make a game with a fully voiced dialogue. Thirdly, I just couldn't bring myself to give a damn about Hawke or his/her family and problems. The family members either spend most of the time off-screen or are flat out annoying and unlikeable. Hawke's problems seem rather illogical and forced upon a player. After Act 1 of the game Hawke becomes very rich - surely s/he can just choose to leave Kirkwall with the family now, but oh no the writers don't even give that as a dialogue option! The character - and the player by extension - is simply not given an option to contemplate that there is another way the character's problems can be resolved! Very sloppy and ham-handed writing guys, seriously.

Finally, while I did quite like Merrill and Varric, other companions, however, were far more lacklustre, and felt more like cardboard cutouts with cliché-ridden quests for the most part. An ex-slave Elf with anger management problems, an asshole younger brother (or a slightly less bitchy younger sister option), an honour-and-justice guardswoman, a sex kitten pirate lass, and a certain apostate mage from Dragon Age making an appearance. Hrm, I think I have seen characters very much like these in... wait... I'll remember... Oh that's right! Every other Bioware game all the way back to Baldur's Gate! Some of these have some redeeming qualities (Isabella is at least hot and has actual character growth, Aveline is hilariously bad at wooing a fellow guard), but these are not frequent. Some companion stories and quests never actually get resolved (here's looking at you Fenris who exacts his revenge and yet doesn't really change in any meaningful way, and Merrill who just seems to shrug off the terrible tragedy inflicted on her), but I was most disappointed with Anders, who was one of my favourite characters from Dragon Age. It's not the fact that he comes out of the closet in Dragon Age 2, it's that he loses anything that made him a fun and interesting character in the first game, and instead he becomes a dour, whiny, and unlikeable would-be rebel. The rather abrupt and annoying plot twist at the end helps transform Anders from a likable and interesting character into a total prick whom I was happy to dump (as a party member and um - more).

Finally, as much as I have already said about the overall story, and how disjointed it felt, I have to single out the ending of the game in particular, because it sneaks up on the player with little build up. In fact, it's fair to say that the first two acts of Dragon Age 2 have less overall impact on the end of the game than a few seemingly innocuous quests. And the two big reveals at the end (yes there are two, and a disappointed groan was my response to each WHAT A TWEEEST! reveal) were so ludicrous that I am very tempted to dismiss these as massive exaggeration on the part of the character who tells the story of Hawke, rather than events that actually happened. The cherry on top is that the game actually ends on a "Ooooooh, there's something mysterious going on and it's linked to the Warden from Dragon Age 1 and is so mysterious that we cannot possibly tell you more!" I, however, basically felt that the 40+ hours I sank into Dragon Age 2 were completely wasted and did not advance the story of the series one iota. This game might be played as a feeling of completion ("Hey, I played Dragon Age, so I should play Dragon Age 2 as well"), or for the gameplay (which frankly has its own slew of issues), but sadly - unlike other Bioware games - it shouldn't be played for the good story.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Homemade Lasagna


Lasagna is one dish that I have been intimidated of cooking since time immemorial. No more I say! Thanks to chef Michael Smith's excellent recipe, homemade lasagna is easy to make. It's an extremely tasty recipe, the only downsides being that it's rather expensive to make, and messy as well. Without further ado - the Speedy Lasagna!

Ingredients

Tomato Sauce

  • 3 tablespoons of olive oil
  • 2 medium onions, peeled and chopped
  • 10 cloves garlic, peeled and chopped
  • 1 pound ground beef
  • 4 Italian sausages, casings removed
  • 1x28 ounce can tomatoes, crushed or pureed
  • 1 small can tomato paste
  • 2 cups beef stock
  • 3 tablespoons dried oregano
  • 2 tablespoons dried basil
  • 3 bay leaves
  • Salt and pepper

Cheese Sauce

  • 2 eggs, beaten
  • 1/2 cup 35% cream
  • 475 grams (1 pound) ricotta cheese
  • 1 cup grated Parmesan cheese
  • 4 cups grated mozzarella cheese
  • Salt and pepper

Assembly

  • 1 box of ready-to-bake lasagna noodles
  • 1 cup grated Parmesan cheese

Directions

Tomato Sauce

  1. Heat the oil in a large saucepot and add the onions.
  2. Sauté until they soften and turn golden brown, about 5 minutes, and then add the garlic.
  3. Sauté a few moments more then add the ground beef and sausage meat.
  4. Chop the meats thoroughly with a spoon to break them up into small pieces.
  5. Add the tomatoes and their juice, tomato paste, beef stock, oregano, basil, bay leaves, salt and pepper.
  6. Stir well and heat until the entire mixture is simmering and heated through.
  7. Taste and add salt and pepper to taste.

Cheese Sauce

  1. Whisk eggs and cream together, then stir in the cheeses.
  2. Season with salt and pepper.

Assembly

  1. Preheat oven to 375°F.
  2. Layer the ingredients together in a 9" x 13" x 3" or other baking pan.
  3. Follow this sequence: a cup or so of sauce, a layer of noodles, half of the cheese sauce, one third of the grated Parmesan, noodle layer, meat sauce layer, noodle layer, remaining cheese sauce, one third of the grated Parmesan, noodle layer, remaining meat sauce, remaining Parmesan.
  4. Cover tightly with foil and bake for 1 hour.
  5. Remove foil during last 15 minutes of cooking to allow the top to get golden and crusty.
Now I do vary the recipe somewhat. What I do is also mince (or use a food processor) three or four bunches of spinach to put into the cheese sauce. Also, I find that putting some extra mozzarella or cheddar cheese on top 15 minutes before the lasagna is supposed to be ready is also quite tasty. Instead of italian sausages you can use ground veal, or put in an extra 1/2 pound or 1 pound of ground beef. Add other veggies (sweet peppers and tomatoes work well in this recipe, and I already mentioned spinach) and remove the meet (and put in some extra cheese) for a vegetarian lasagna. Bon appettit!

Monday, February 21, 2011

On Harper

I'm just copying and pasting a passage from a Globe and Mail article on Harper and Bev Oda/Kairos controversy because it so encapsulates all the rage and disappointment I feel about our Prime Minister and the ineffectual opposition:

He silences whistle-blowers and punishes dissenters.

He treats Parliament with open contempt and brazenly lies when found out.

He suspends Parliament at the first sign of political risk.

He makes a mockery of the accountability and transparency he loudly demands of everyone else.

He makes lying to parliament just another tactical device.

He fakes his budgets by refusing to cost new initiatives.

He transforms vital watchdogs of democracy into mushy lapdogs.

He unleashes ministers to attack judges who make unwelcome decisions. He personalizes attacks on his “enemies”.

He blithely smears other parties, groups and individuals as anti-Semitic.

He is impervious to the democratic spirit that has galvanized hundreds of millions of people to stand up for freedom.

He makes major economic decisions on the basis of their impact on his electoral fortunes.

Makes you wonder why Canadians aren’t yet out on the streets in the millions. Instead, Michael Ignatieff demands that Bev Oda be fired.

http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/politics/second-reading/gerald-caplan/stephen-harpers-worst-enemy/article1913681/page1/

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Brief musings on fantasy and sci-fi today

What I've come to realize is that for the most part sci-fi and fantasy writers depend on certain tropes and styles of writing and rarely step outside of those tropes and styles to examine other types of fiction. Patrick Rothfuss writes very well, but what sets "Name of the wind" from most other fantasy and has distinguished him so much among the fans of fantasy fiction is not the originality of his world (because it's hardly original), but how he writes. He exposes the typical sci-fi/fantasy fiction reader to styles and tropes that are not typical to these genres, therefore setting himself apart and appearing original. Same reason I suspect that Mieville has had to much success.

While Rothfuss looks to autobiographical/storytelling styles of fiction, Mieville looks to Pahlaniuk's urban fiction/stream of consciousness/minutae OCD style. Neither are found in sci-fi/fantasy very often, and thus both appear as a breath of fresh air.the styles and tropes in mainstream fiction have changed a lot since then. And personally I find that far too many sci-fi authors are still writing like Asimov and Clarke and Heinlein and Vance were still alive (which would have been bold and original - and was - back in the day), while too many fantasy authors write quite blandly. Rothfuss, Mieville, Stross (I'm talking about his more out-there books rather than Laundry Files books), Vance, Gaiman, Susanna Clarke, Ursula LeGuin, and several others look outside of the established sci-fi/fantasy/horror mielieu for different styles and tropes. That's what differentiates them from yet more "elves with swords" or yet another "military space opera with blasters and FTL travel and aliens" (here's looking at you Tanya Huff) that cram bookstore shelves.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Jesus is coming! Look busy!

How do I know that Jesus is coming? Because I just used a debit machine in Tim Horton's!!! And it worked!!! My life does occasionally intersect with little miracles.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Domodedovo and Putin

The latest horrific terrorist act in the Domodedovo Airport in Moscow ought to be a clarion call for Putin and Co. to finally resign. Let's perform a simple thought experiment. What if the September 2011 World Trade Centre attack was followed by a continuous and expanding wave of terrorist acts on U.S. soil? What if it was followed by attacks on Broadway theatres, on schools in the Midwest, on high-rise apartments in Chicago, on subway in Los Angeles? What if, despite pouring many billions into new anti-terrorism agencies, new anti-terrorism legislation, fresh campaign promises to fight anti-terrorism, and so on, the wave of terror only grew? How long would Bush's regime have survived before being forced to resign in the wave of public outrage?

Prime Minister Putin's mandate when he was Russia's president between 2000 and 2008 was stability: both economic and physical. His promise to: “Drown the responsible in an outhouse” back in 2000 brought him to power and bought him 11 years of uninterrupted rule. And yet over that time the number of terrorist acts on Russian soil grew from 130 attacks per year in 2000 to 750 attacks per year in 2009. During that same time the federal budget for anti-terrorism and law enforcement grew from $2.8 billion in 2000 to $31.3 billion in 2009. At every step Putin and his closest supporters used each major terrorist act to slowly erode what was remaining of democracy in Russia. The horrific murder of children and teachers in Beslan was the pretext for cancelling free elections of provincial governors, the failed attempt to rescue hostages during the attack on Dubrovka theatre in Moscow was the pretext to pass censorship laws to bring Russian TV stations under government control, and so on.

The Domodedovo attack underscores the need for both Russian people and Western states to rethink their relationship with Putin's regime. Regardless of how much more 'humane' President Medvedev may appear than Putin, there are no illusions as to who is really in control of Russia. Putin's regime must answer for its abuse of civil liberties and due course of law, its failed policies in the Caucasus region that are directly responsible both for the escalation of terror and murder of hundreds of civilians, its repeated attempts to get rid of free speech vis-a-vis censorship laws and murders and attacks on Russian journalists, and the staggering growth of economic corruption that has placed Russia in the 154th spot on Transparency International's Corruption Perceptions Index for 2010 (that's up unprecedented 82 spots since Putin became president in 2000). While the terrorist attack on Moscow's largest airport is inexcusable, horrific, and evil, Russians and Western leaders must realize that lasting solution to this kind of violence does not lie with Putin and his clique. If Prime Minister Putin and President Medvedev truly have Russia's best interests and commitment to democracy at heart, they should resign immediately.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Winter Road

Because the world needs more crappy poetry!

Between lucidity and dreams
Brief snatches of the hidden sun.
White nothing stretches on ahead
Dead orchards stand waiting for spring
What I can hear is a snippet of another life
Their parties, jobs, and worries are sparrows
Lost and huddled in the plunging of singular warmth
Through tusks and beards of the winter forest.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Yay the secret's out!

Yup, I'm that Arseni Kritchever who contributed to the FFG's Deathwatch Errata. Yes, it's kinda silly, and it's for a game, and it's not like even a book or something, but I wrote something, and it got published (even if only web-published) and I got paid for it, so I'm super happy!!!!!!!!!!